The Power of Optimism in a Pessimistic World

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 


The Power of Optimism in a Pessimistic World

Tired of reporting blood and guts

Once upon a time a young man named Jurriaan Kamp worked as a free-lance journalist in war-torn areas. One day he realized that the more bombs fell and the more people were horribly injured, the more he got paid. That’s when he began to suspect there was something wrong with the way we do journalism.

One night, Jurriaan and his wife Helene stayed up late discussing how they wished journalism would change. They came up with the idea of starting their own magazine. “Normally,” said Jurriaan, “ideas that come up over a glass of wine on a warm evening vanish the next day in the shower. But this idea— it stayed.”

Jurriaan succeeded in defying the violence and negativity-obsessed journalism of our times. The magazine he cofounded with Helene has prospered for over twenty years, raising positive movements (from microfinance to forgiveness therapy) into the public consciousness. The magazine was recently renamed The Intelligent Optimist.

What if the world was actually getting better?

Jurriaan and Berrett-Koehler Publishers will soon be coming out with a book called The Intelligent Optimist’s Guide to Life. The book uses facts and statistics to demonstrate that things aren’t nearly as bad as you think. Optimists are more likely to succeed, and even have longer lifespans and better health. The people who look for possibilities rather than problems, are inevitably the ones that prevail.

To briefly quote the upcoming book, “There will always be problems. That won’t ever change. What you can change is the way you approach those problems: with gratitude for the chance to learn a new lesson, gratitude for the opportunity to find a path that may provide new fulfillment and thanks for everything that is working and for everything that makes your life good. That gratitude is the converse of the pessimist’s disappointment.”

Why do we need a book defending optimism?

Pessimism is widespread, Jurriaan says, because it is “trendy.” When people lean back and cynically predict disaster, they seem “cool” to themselves as well as others. But cynicism is the coward’s way out. Saying, “I can do nothing,” absolves you of the responsibility to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Being optimistic is a more courageous, more difficult, and more effective choice.

As Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” If we don’t clearly understand the value of the things we cherish, how can the world move forward? Jurriaan thinks we need a perspective that balances the spiritual with the material, and the pendulum has swung much too far towards the material. “We may not go to church,” he says, “but we need something that tells us life is not just matter and money.”

Optimism is “the art of the possible”

Another way that society is out of balance: we need to strike a better happy medium between the individual and the collective. We live in an age when collective units— governments and corporations— have more rights than individuals. The pendulum needs to swing back towards individual freedom and unique expression, Jurriaan believes.

Governments and corporations may grow entrenched in bureaucracy, but individuals can always train themselves in “the art of the possible.” What is the art of the possible? Well, when calamity strikes, the first question you ask yourself, is “What can I do?” Not “How could this happen?” or “What have I lost?” but “What can I do.” This is the question that sets you free. The people who can train themselves to see opportunity in calamity are the innovators who will create the future.

Can people determined to change the world stay optimistic?

Berrett-Koehler has many books that ring the warning bells on climate change, corporate rule, and other pressing issues. Perhaps this is why Jurriaan Kamp made a pointed comment: “My book is different from the other books you publish.” We were startled. We asked ourselves, “Do we publish pessimistic books?” In our fervor to “create a world that works for all,” are we overlooking how well the world works?

We live in a world with many serious problems, yes. But the world also has many wonderful things. About time the world got some credit, eh? Some of the Berrett-Koehler staff is undertaking the 100 happy days challenge, posting pictures of things that make them happy…. each and every day… for 100 days. The illustration for this article shows three of Maria-Jesus Aguilo’s happy days.

So let me ask you…

What’s going right in your life?